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Nuclear Weapon Effects

Nuclear detonations are the most devastating of the weapons of mass destruction. To make this point one need only recall the pictures from Hiroshima or the international furor over the accidental but enormous radiation release from the Chernobyl power plant. The contamination from Chernobyl was significantly larger than would have been expected from a nuclear detonation of about 20 kT at ground level, but was comparable in extent to what might result from a “small” nuclear war in which a dozen or so weapons of nominal yield were exploded at altitudes intended to maximize blast damage.

A nuclear detonation creates a severe environment including blast, thermal pulse, neutrons, x- and gamma-rays, radiation, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), and ionization of the upper atmosphere. Depending upon the environment in which the nuclear de-vice is detonated, blast effects are manifested as ground shock, water shock, “blueout,” cratering, and large amounts of dust and radioactive fallout. All pose problems for the survival of friendly systems and can lead to the destruction or neutralization of hostile assets.

The energy of a nuclear explosion is transferred to the surrounding medium in three distinct forms: blast; thermal radiation; and nuclear radiation. The distribution of energy among these three forms will depend on the yield of the weapon, the location of the burst, and the characteristics of the environment. For a low altitude atmospheric detonation of a moderate sized weapon in the kiloton range, the energy is distributed roughly as follows:

50% as blast;

35% as thermal radiation; made up of a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum, including infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light and some soft x-ray emitted at the time of the explosion; and

15% as nuclear radiation; including 5% as initial ionizing radiation consisting chiefly of neutrons and gamma rays emitted within the first minute after detonation, and 10% as residual nuclear radiation. Residual nuclear radiation is the hazard in fallout.
Considerable variation from this distribution will occur with changes in yield or location of the detonation.

Because of the tremendous amounts of energy liberated per unit mass in a nuclear detonation, temperatures of several tens of million degrees centigrade develop in the immediate area of the detonation. This is in marked contrast to the few thousand degrees of a conventional explosion. At these very high temperatures the nonfissioned parts of the nuclear weapon are vaporized. The atoms do not release the energy as kinetic energy but release it in the form of large amounts of electromagnetic radiation. In an atmospheric detonation, this electromagnetic radiation, consisting chiefly of soft x-ray, is absorbed within a few meters of the point of detonation by the surrounding atmosphere, heating it to extremely high temperatures and forming a brilliantly hot sphere of air and gaseous weapon residues, the so-called fireball. Immediately upon formation, the fireball begins to grow rapidly and rise like a hot air balloon. Within a millisecond after detonation, the diameter of the fireball from a 1 megaton (Mt) air burst is 150 m. This increases to a maximum of 2200 m within 10 seconds, at which time the fireball is also rising at the rate of 100 m/sec. The initial rapid expansion of the fireball severely compresses the surrounding atmosphere, producing a powerful blast wave.

As it expands toward its maximum diameter, the fireball cools, and after about a minute its temperature has decreased to such an extent that it no longer emits significant amounts of thermal radiation. The combination of the upward movement and the cooling of the fireball gives rise to the formation of the characteristic mushroom-shaped cloud. As the fireball cools, the vaporized materials in it condense to form a cloud of solid particles. Following an air burst, condensed droplets of water give it a typical white cloudlike appearance. In the case of a surface burst, this cloud will also contain large quantities of dirt and other debris which are vaporized when the fireball touches the earth's surface or are sucked up by the strong updrafts afterwards, giving the cloud a dirty brown appearance. The dirt and debris become contaminated with the radioisotopes generated by the explosion or activated by neutron radiation and fall to earth as fallout.

The relative effects of blast, heat, and nuclear radiation will largely be determined by the altitude at which the weapon is detonated. Nuclear explosions are generally classified as air bursts, surface bursts, subsurface bursts, or high altitude bursts.

Air Bursts. An air burst is an explosion in which a weapon is detonated in air at an altitude below 30 km but at sufficient height that the fireball does not contact the surface of the earth. After such a burst, blast may cause considerable damage and injury. The altitude of an air burst can be varied to obtain maximum blast effects, maximum thermal effects, desired radiation effects, or a balanced combination of these effects. Burns to exposed skin may be produced over many square kilometers and eye injuries over a still larger area. Initial nuclear radiation will be a significant hazard with smaller weapons, but the fallout hazard can be ignored as there is essentially no local fallout from an air burst. The fission products are generally dispersed over a large area of the globe unless there is local rainfall resulting in localized fallout. In the vicinity of ground zero, there may be a small area of neutron-induced activity which could be hazardous to troops required to pass through the area. Tactically, air bursts are the most likely to be used against ground forces.

Surface Burst. A surface burst is an explosion in which a weapon is detonated on or slightly above the surface of the earth so that the fireball actually touches the land or water surface. Under these conditions, the area affected by blast, thermal radiation, and initial nuclear radiation will be less extensive than for an air burst of similar yield, except in the region of ground zero where destruction is concentrated. In contrast with air bursts, local fallout can be a hazard over a much larger downwind area than that which is affected by blast and thermal radiation.

Subsurface Burst. A subsurface burst is an explosion in which the point of the detonation is beneath the surface of land or water. Cratering will generally result from an underground burst, just as for a surface burst. If the burst does not penetrate the surface, the only other hazard will be from ground or water shock. If the burst is shallow enough to penetrate the surface, blast, thermal, and initial nuclear radiation effects will be present, but will be less than for a surface burst of comparable yield. Local fallout will be very heavy if penetration occurs.

High Altitude Burst. A high altitude burst is one in which the weapon is exploded at such an altitude (above 30 km) that initial soft x-rays generated by the detonation dissipate energy as heat in a much larger volume of air molecules. There the fireball is much larger and expands much more rapidly. The ionizing radiation from the high altitude burst can travel for hundreds of miles before being absorbed. Significant ionization of the upper atmosphere (ionosphere) can occur. Severe disruption in communications can occur following high altitude bursts. They also lead to generation of an intense electromagnetic pulse (EMP) which can significantly degrade performance of or destroy sophisticated electronic equipment. There are no known biological effects of EMP; however, indirect effects may result from failure of critical medical equipment.

Although some nuclear weapons effects (NWE) such as blast and cratering have analogs in the effects of conventional weapons, many NWE are unique to nuclear use. In addition, blast and other “common” weapons effects are likely to be much more powerful in the nuclear case than in the realm of conventional weapons. NWE are so severe that combinations of two or more simultaneously (as in a real event) may not add linearly, complicating the design and construction of physical simulators or the writing and validation of computer simulation codes.

Although thermal radiation, EMP, and ionizing radiation from a nuclear blast are all damage producing, at yields below about a megaton the blast and shock produced by a nuclear weapon are the predominant means of damaging a target. For some targets, such as underground bunkers and missile silos, blast and shock are virtually the only effective destructive mechanisms.

The intensity of thermal radiation decreases only as the inverse square of the distance from a nuclear detonation, while blast, shock, and prompt ionizing radiation effects decrease more rapidly. Thus, high-yield weapons are primarily incendiary weapons, able to start fires and do other thermal damage at distances well beyond the radius at which they can topple buildings or overturn armored vehicles.

Nuclear effects on electromagnetic signal propagation, which affects command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence (C 4 I), are of concern to countries expected to use nuclear weapons, particularly those which intend to explode a weapon at great altitudes or those which expect to have to defend against such a nuclear attack. C3I technology is primarily affected by high-altitude nuclear effects that could interrupt satellite-to-satellite communications, satellite-to-aircraft links, or satellite-to-ground links. Most nations will hope that signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites and ground-based differential GPS transmitters will be usable shortly after a nuclear explosion, as well as traditional communications channels which must be protected.

The electromagnetic pulse generated by the detonation of a single nuclear weapon at high altitudes can be a threat to military systems located as much as a thousand miles away. HEMP can disable communications systems and even power grids at enormous distances from the burst. This type of threat could be used by a third world country that has the capability to launch a rocket carrying a high-yield device (about 1 megaton or more) a few hundred kilometers into the upper atmosphere and a few thousand kilometers from its own territory (to avoid damaging its own systems).

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Maintained by Steven Aftergood
Originally created by John Pike
Updated Wednesday, October 21, 1998 4:35:26 PM